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John Kerry: Copenhagen Must Push Congress. But Can It?

December 17, 2009
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Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) delivered a speech today at COP 15 to a rapt crowd comprising of NGO leaders, delegates, politicians, and UN staff. Given the contentiousness of the US’ current stance at the COP 15 negotiations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman’s remarks may have been meant to explain away the US’ persistently (or characteristically?) difficult stance on issues such as deforestation and mitigation.

Kerry’s 30-minute long address sounded like a mixed bag of excuses and a realistic depiction of the shortcomings and challenges of the American political system. While he alluded to America’s willingness to be a party to a legally binding emissions reduction treaty, Kerry qualified that the American public and the US Congress needed the reassurance that the US’ key manufacturing competitors, India and China, would bear similar responsibilities on climate change.

“Some of my colleagues in Washington … remain reluctant to grapple with a climate crisis mostly measured in future dangers, when they’re confronted every day with the present pain of hardworking people in a tough economic time….To pass a bill, we must be able to assure a senator from Ohio that steelworkers in his state won’t lose their jobs to India and China because those countries are not participating in a way that is measurable, reportable and verifiable…..Every American — indeed, I think all citizens — need to know that no country will claim an unfair advantage.”

Kerry urged COP 15 to produce a strong political agreement that would prove the world’s willingness to cooperate on climate change issues. The illustration that all parties, particularly “future emitters” (read: India and China), would undertake obligations to reduce emissions would push Congress into signing the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA or commonly known as the Energy Bill). The economics of climate change and its impact on trade relations are particularly pertinent given that the US will be mired in a deep recession for at least the next couple of years.

What was most interesting about this talk is the notion that an international political development could impact and influence domestic legislation. While it is common that a country’s domestic policy would have a bearing on its foreign policy and thus shape international political dynamics, the reverse is fairly uncommon….and perhaps even unlikely?

If only it were so easy. I must admit that I am extremely skeptical of Kerry’s stance. The same thing happened with Kyoto–the US was part of the drafting process, the world came out and demonstrated its proactiveness but Kyoto wasn’t even surfaced in Congress. The politicians in Ohio and the steelworkers in Indiana will still jealously guard their territory/jobs/competitive advantage no matter how overwhelming the international consensus is.

While success at Copenhagen may illustrate to the US that it is behind the pack and instigate some desire to reclaim its leadership position in the world, it’s not going to silence the frenzied constituencies. The US will do what the US will do, unless it obtains tangible (and at this point, unrealistic) outcomes from India and China. Is this asking too much? Perhaps. At this juncture,it doesn’t seem likely that the 2 will relinquish their claim to escape any binding limits.

Nonetheless, Kerry shared with the crowd a relatively optimistic timeline for the passing of the US Energy bill, stating that the Senate would likely pass the bill as early as June 2010.

Live from COP 15

Amira
ECO Singapore

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